- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 3, 2015

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - Three years after a bruising debate brought some changes to Vermont’s laws on childhood immunizations, some lawmakers are considering revisiting the issue amid a measles outbreak that has sickened more than 100 people across the U.S. and in Mexico.

A Senate passed-bill in 2012 was significantly scaled back in the House after critics called it an assault on parents’ right to choose whether to have their children vaccinated.

And even lawmakers backing further tightening of Vermont’s rules say they’re aware that if the state sought to do so, a coalition of vaccine skeptics and parents-rights advocates would be ready to descend on the Statehouse again.

A state known for organic foods, alternative medicine and skepticism about big pharmaceutical companies ranks third in the country for parents who take a “non-medical” - usually meaning philosophical or religious - exemption from having their children get the full list of recommended vaccines, behind Oregon and Idaho, according to the state Health Department.

Rep. William Lippert, D-Hinesburg, said that when one lawmaker approached him about narrowing parent choice, he cautioned her about the heated debate that erupted three years ago.

The lawmaker who approached Lippert, Rep. Barbara Rachelson, D-Burlington, first joined the Legislature the year following the 2012 debate.

“Are there lessons to be learned from how that went last time?” Rachelson asked in an interview. With the stepped-up public education by the state Health Department, coupled with a measles outbreak that has spread to 14 states, Vermonters might be more ready now to embrace pro-vaccine arguments, she said.

Infectious disease also has been front-and-center in Vermont in recent days, with the announcement Friday that seven children and an adult from the Charlotte Central School had tested positive for tuberculosis and will be given antibiotics for nine months to ensure they do not get sick with the disease that usually attacks the lungs.

Christine Finley, immunization program manager with the state Health Department, said there is a vaccine for tuberculosis that is used in some other countries. But she said it is not often used in the United States because it does not offer long-lasting protection, and because tuberculosis is so rare in the U.S.

Rep. Leigh Dakin, a Chester Democrat and retired school nurse, said he had submitted a bill drafting request to the Legislature’s legal staff to “tighten up the regs” around parents exempting their children from immunizations. She declined to provide further details until the bill becomes public.

Vermont has seen just one measles case in the past 10 years, in 2011, Finley said.

Dakin said that should not let residents rest easy. “We are a global society,” she said. “Folks come to visit from all over the world.”

After the 2012 debate, Vermont passed a scaled-down law that maintained its philosophical exemptions for parents who decide against vaccinations, but stepped up reporting requirements by parents and schools and public education efforts by the state Health Department.

Jennifer Stella, president of the group Vermont Coalition for Vaccine Choice, said she was not eager to go another round over childhood immunizations. She called it “probably premature” for anyone to convince lawmakers to back “state encroachment on parents’ rights after the discussion we had just a few years ago.”

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